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Gordon: National title or bust for WCC power Gonzaga

Gonzaga fans played their part, helping pack T-Mobile Arena to its brim and fostering a championship atmosphere.

They stood. They cheered. They lampooned the calls that didn’t go their way that night against Duke and gleefully praised the ones that did.

They made it feel like late March on a late November night in Las Vegas. And like they do every spring — regardless of the venue or city — they left after another disappointing loss to another national title contender, this time 84-81 to the Blue Devils.

But coach Mark Few’s Bulldogs are back this week for the West Coast Conference basketball tournament at Orleans Arena, and their fans also are back to watch the nation’s No. 1 team and wonder again.

Is this the year? It this the group that finally wins the program’s first national championship?

Gonzaga will answer those questions in the next month in the NCAA Tournament, for which it will begin preparations Monday against San Francisco in the WCC semifinals. The championship game is Tuesday, meaning the Bulldogs will wait more than a week before beginning NCAA Tournament play and attempting to avenge the losses of yesteryear.

Namely a blowout loss to Baylor last season in the national championship game.

What they do in Las Vegas against their WCC competition shouldn’t have any bearing on how they perform later this month. They surely would trade all 18 of their conference tournament championships for one national title.

A 19th won’t be cause for celebration.

If not now, when?

The Bulldogs probably aren’t quite as good as they were last season sans point guard Jalen Suggs and two-guard Corey Kispert, first-round NBA draft picks who steeled the Bulldogs with their skill and moxie. But they don’t have to be amid the parity this season.

Baylor isn’t as good, and Gonzaga’s other Final Four counterparts — UCLA and Houston — don’t seem to be, either. Other national title contenders such as Duke, Arizona, Auburn, Kansas and Kentucky haven’t been quite as consistent against better competition as the Bulldogs, who average 1.169 points per possession to lead the nation in offensive efficiency.

They also lead the NCAA in field-goal percentage (52.4) and rank third in defensive efficiency — allowing 0.861 points per possession. Opponents shoot 37.6 percent from the field against Gonzaga. Only Houston (36.8 percent) has been better.

Take those numbers with a grain of salt along with anything that happens Monday or Tuesday: The WCC is still an average midmajor conference.

But the Bulldogs contextualize the upside that resides on their roster.

Junior forward Drew Timme (17.6 points per game) was the WCC’s Player of the Year and arguably is the country’s best low-post presence. Senior point guard Andrew Nembhard (11.3 points, 5.5 assists) is among the nation’s best, morphing from the timid, secondary ballhandler who struggled last season against Baylor into a fluid floor general.

Former Liberty High School star Julian Strawther (12.5 points) is a stalwart in the starting lineup as a floor-spacing sophomore wing. And freshman Chet Holmgren (14.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.6 blocks) shines as brightly as Suggs did during his freshman season — albeit as positionless 7-footer who can shoot, handle and protect the paint with his size and length.

The collective won’t face the pressure that last season’s team did amid its march toward perfection. Or a team as good as last season’s Baylor squad.

What the Zags must face is the reality they’ve created with their WCC dominance.

If not now, then when? And if not the team comprised of veterans who played last season in the NCAA championship game — plus a presumptive top-three NBA draft pick — then who?

It doesn’t just feel like March. It is March. And it’s championship or bust for the team from Spokane, Washington.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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